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Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants (New York: Penguin Books, 2010)
Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011)

If we judged these books by their covers, or at least their titles, we would guess that they represent strictly opposed positions on the role of technology in our lives. Kevin Kelly, cofounder of Wired magazine, seems to anthropomorphize technology and suggests that the focus of the book is on technology and not humanity. Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, clearly expresses her suspicion about technology in both the primary title and the subtitle of her work. Her focus seems to be on humanity rather than technology. In this case, there is some truth to judging these books by their covers. For Kelly, technology is the big Other to which (or whom?) we must make peace. For Turkle, technology is a tool on the way to becoming an Other, and this transition has serious consequences for who we are as human beings. Together, their works demonstrate well the complexity of our relationship with technology (in particular, computers, artificial intelligence, social media, etc.). Together, their works serve as invaluable resources as we grapple with the import and consequences of technological advances. [End Page 450]

Kelly coins the term technium to describe the object of his investigation. The technium “extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections” (11–12).

The technium is not just a set of tools for use by humans. The technium is a species like others on the planet, seeking to grow and extend itself. The technium “wants to sort itself out, to self-assemble into hierarchical levels, just as most large, deeply interconnected systems do. The technium also wants what every living system wants: to perpetuate itself, to keep itself going. And as it grows, those inherent wants are gaining in complexity and force” (15). In sum, the technium wants increasing efficiency, opportunity, emergence, complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, and evolvability (270). As Kelly notes, the technium “has its own agenda. It is selfish” (198).

Describing the technium as an organism may strike us as a bit odd or simply wrong. At best we might see the comparison as only a weak analogy. But talking about the technium as a living organism is not simply analogical for Kelly—a clever heuristic device to make his case. He turns to the biological sciences to argue that life can be understood primarily as “the intangible organization of the energy and information” of any particular organism (10). We also understand life as an evolutionary process. On both counts (organization of energy and information as well as evolution), Kelly concludes that the “technium can really only be understood as a type of evolutionary life” (45). But evolving towards what? Evolution, it turns out, is an end in itself. The point of evolution is evolution. Thus, the “technium is a continuation of a four-billion-year-old force that pursues more ability to evolve” (342). In fact, the technium results in an exponential leap forward for evolution. It accelerates evolution—both for itself and for us. Kelly concludes that “the evolution of evolution is the most powerful force in the universe” (344).

Toward the end of his book, Kelly explains what he was trying to figure out all along: “What I was really searching for was a way to reconcile the technium’s selfish nature, which wants more of itself, with its generous nature, which wants to help us to find more of ourselves [i.e., to evolve]” (352). So the [End Page 451] technium is both selfish and generous. It has been so generous to us that we cannot possibly live without it.

As an evolving organism (or, at least, like one), Kelly argues, the technium is not a tool at our disposal (though constituent parts of it can function like tools) but something with which we have a symbiotic relationship. “We are coevolving with our technology, and so we have become deeply dependent on it,” Kelly writes. “If all technology—every last knife and spear—were to be removed from this planet, our species would not last more than a few months. We are now symbiotic with technology” (37). Another way of describing this symbiosis is “convergent evolution” (105).

So whether or not we want the technium, we are stuck with it. Our fate is sealed. But our fate does not make us passive victims of the technium. A positive attitude about our symbiotic relationship with technology and a proactive approach to it can make a significant difference. “When we spy our technological fate in the distance, we should not reel back in horror of its inevitability,” Kelly advises; “rather, we should lurch forward in preparation” (173).

Kelly warns against what he calls the “Precautionary Principle”—expecting the worst out of technological developments, leading to a stunting of both human and technological advances (246–47). Kelly urges us instead to engage in the following five proactions:

  1. 1. Anticipation (of both “horrors” and “glories”)

  2. 2. Continual Assessment

  3. 3. Prioritization of Risks, Including Natural Ones

  4. 4. Rapid Correction of Harm

  5. 5. Not Prohibition but Redirection (toward a more fruitful relationship) (255–57)

With these fairly simple guidelines, Kelly believes that we can effectively negotiate our symbiotic relationship with the technium.

In the end, Kelly’s argument is not primarily about technology. It is primarily about us. It is a moral argument. He concludes that “if we fail to enlarge the possibilities for other people, we diminish them, and that is unforgivable. Enlarging the scope of creativity for others, then, is an obligation” (349). But how do we enlarge the scope of creativity for others? “We enlarge others by enlarging the possibilities of the technium—by developing more [End Page 452] technology and more convivial expressions of it” (349). If we obey this moral imperative and engage the technium as Kelly advises, the result is a “new axial age” (358)—nearly a utopian future:

No one person can become all that is humanly possible; no one technology can capture all that technology promises. It will take all life and all minds and all technology to begin to see reality. It will take the whole technium, and that includes us, to discover the tools that are needed to surprise the world. Along the way we generate more options, more opportunities, more connection, more diversity, more unity, more thought, more beauty, and more problems. Those add up to more good, an infinite game worth playing.

That’s what technology wants.


And so Kelly concludes his work.

Contrary to Kelly’s vision, Turkle offers the reader a much more cautionary tale. Alone Together focuses on two key technological developments: robots and social media. Turkle is aware of how enticing these technologies are for us: “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other” (1). Turkle views people in the contemporary world (she predominantly writes about U.S. citizens) as fundamentally lonely. Awash in information and the ability to stay in almost constant contact with anyone in the world, people still feel alone. As she concludes, “We are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone: in intimacy, new solitudes” (19).

The first half of the book is about robots and advances in artificial intelligence. From children’s toys like AIBO (Sony’s robotic dog) to lifelike sexual partners to robots that would care for the elderly in nursing homes, Turkle covers a wide range of technological advances that hold out the prospect of providing humans with companionship and care. The promise of this technology is that it will be able to fill the holes in our interpersonal lives. But technology will never be able to provide for us what genuine human relationships [End Page 453] offer. For example, think about empathy. Despite the promise and futuristic visions of artificial intelligence, Turkle does not believe that we ever will accept robots as genuine others. She insists that the “first thing missing if you take a robot as a companion is alterity, the ability to see the world through the eyes of another. Without alterity, there can be no empathy” (55). In short, we do not and will not look at robots and imagine that they really understand our situation or how we are feeling; and we likewise cannot understand the world as they do (no more than we can understand the world from our goldfish’s perspective).

Of course, some (many?) people might find it beneficial that we do not need to empathize with a robot companion. After all, it is only a machine. We can take advantage of its attention, service, and care without having to give anything back. But what does this do to us? Are we not enriched by the demands of our real-life companions? Turkle concludes: “Dependence on a robot presents itself as risk free. But when one becomes accustomed to “companionship” without demands, life with people may seem overwhelming. Dependence on a person is risky—it makes us subject to rejection—but it also opens us to deeply knowing another. Robotic companionship may seem a sweet deal, but it consigns us to a closed world—the loveable as safe and made to measure” (66).

So robotic life fails us on multiple levels. It neither provides the human responsiveness we need (empathy being one example) nor challenges us to develop our emotional lives (again, being empathic as just one example). “I believe that sociable technology will always disappoint because it promises what it cannot deliver,” Turkle concludes. “It promises friendship but can only deliver performances” (101). The problem, however, is more than just failed promise. The problem is how robotic technology may come to shape or even distort our concepts of friendship and love. “What will love be?” Turkle asks. “And what will it mean to achieve ever-greater intimacy with our machines? Are we ready to see ourselves in the mirror of the machine and to see love as our performances of love?” (138).

One important area of human life where robots already are being used, alluded to earlier, is in the care of the elderly. In countries like Japan and the United States where there is an increasing elderly population and a decreasing birthrate, which leaves fewer young people to care for the elderly, robotic [End Page 454] technology is seen as an efficient and critical solution to the demographic problem. But what do we give up when we give up on caring for our seniors? “When we lose the ‘burden’ of care,” Turkle concludes, “we begin to give up on our compact that human beings will care for other human beings” (292). And when we give up on that compact, we give up something critical about who we are.

As opposed to robots, which would seem to be replacing human contact, social media would seem to be increasing our connections with others. Voice and video devices allow us to communicate with others in unprecedented ways. But the frequency or quantity of communication may or may not have a positive impact on the quality of communication and relationships.

One of the dangers involves our very identities. Turkle argues that “on social-networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves, but our profile ends up as somebody else—often the fantasy of who we want to be” (153). And even that fantasy may not be our fantasy—it may be what Turkle calls a “collaborative self.” Status updates on Facebook, texting, tweeting, and more provide us with opportunities to share our thoughts and feelings with others as never before. But these outlets are not just a means to share our thoughts and feelings. They become means for the very construction of them. So, Turkle concludes, technology “does not cause but encourages a sensibility in which the validation of a feeling becomes part of establishing it, even part of the feeling itself” (177). Our self, then, increasingly is a product of a nexus of lines of communication—lines that have increased in number and have become more pervasive (even intrusive) as technology has advanced.

One might reasonably respond that the self always has been collaborative. Surely Turkle would agree. But she also may be right that the ways in which we are fully networked provides little time for solitude and reflection, resulting in even less control on our part in the construction of our selves.

Another danger of social media has to do with a distinction that Turkle makes between feeling alone and our ability to be alone. According to Turkle, social media leads to the former and stunts the latter. “Networked, we are together, but so lessened are our expectations of each other that we can feel utterly alone,” she writes. “And there is the risk that we come to see others as objects to be accessed—and only for the parts we find useful, comforting, or amusing” (154). While nobody wants to feel alone, Turkle finds merit in [End Page 455] our ability to be alone—something that our computers and cell phones don’t allow very often, resulting in our increasing inability to be alone effectively. She notes that “people feel as though they must have a reason for taking time alone” (202). But it is not just that we have a hard time finding time to be alone. We also have a problem being alone. She cites texting as one prominent example (206). Instead of being able to process feelings in solitude, to grapple with them and reflect about how best to deal with them, more and more people immediately text a friend, family member, or lover. Perhaps what comes back to us across the screen is beneficial. Perhaps not. The point is (and this too is part of the idea of the “collaborative self”) that we are increasingly incapable of being alone with our thoughts and feelings, and ultimately this means that we are less emotionally capable individuals.

The networked world has other drawbacks. Screens serve as shields that lead to stunted relationships, and even encourage us to communicate with others in insensitive and hurtful ways that we would not allow ourselves in person (188). Screens (especially with texting and e-mail) replace the human voice, and thus diminish the subtlety and intimacy of our relationships (206–7). Indeed, Turkle notes the irony that we “work so hard to give expressive voices to our robots but are content not to use our own” (207). The many drawbacks of the networked world also cause a diminution of communities and our sense of community. Turkle is reluctant to speak of online “communities,” since such communities have such weak ties. As she notes, real communities “are constituted by physical proximity, shared concerns, real consequences, and common responsibilities. Its members help each other in the most practical ways” (239). Our technology can facilitate these communities, can be a tool for them. But the technology cannot replace these communities, at least not adequately. And to the extent that we spend more time in online “communities” rather than engaged in our real communities, our lives are the worse for it.

Certainly Turkle is not some Luddite with images of returning to a long-gone (thankfully so in many regards) idyllic past. Her concern is that we simply have not faced the consequences and the pressing questions that the new technology brings.

Ironically, we are increasingly turning to technology to solve the problems of technology. “Overwhelmed by the pace that technology makes [End Page 456] possible, we think about how new, more efficient technologies might help dig us out,” Turkle writes. “But new devices encourage ever-greater volume and velocity” (280). While Kelly finds this growth and development in technology both necessary and worth celebrating, for Turkle the new technologies, as shiny and enticing as they are, make matters worse. Turkle concludes that we soon will have (or already have) “post-familial families,” here tying social media back to robotic technology: “Their members are alone together, each in their own rooms, each on a networked computer or mobile device. We go online because we are busy but end up spending more time with technology and less with each other. We defend connectivity as a way to be close, even as we effectively hide from each other. At the limit, we will settle for the inanimate [virtual friends, robots, etc.], if that’s what it takes” (280–81).

Clearly Kelly and Turkle approach technology differently. But they do share some conclusions about technology and where we are headed. “In the future, we’ll find it easier to love technology,” Kelly writes. “Machines win our hearts with every step they take in evolution. Like it or not, animal-like robots (at the level of pets, at first) will gain our affections, as even minimally lifelike ones do already” (324). Turkle’s research and the studies she summarizes certainly affirm Kelly’s prognostication. Her book is filled with accounts of people with strong emotional attachments to virtual or robotic beings. And both Kelly and Turkle recognize the powerful attraction that technology has on us. Kelly claims that “in the not-too-distant future the magnificence of certain patches of the technium will rival the splendor of the natural world. We will rhapsodize about this or that technology’s charms and marvel at its subtlety [as many people already do with the latest generation of the iPhone or iPad]. We will travel to it with children in tow to sit in silence beneath its towers” (325). Turkle certainly does not romanticize about technology in the same way, but her work does confirm the power of the attraction that Kelly celebrates.

But here is where the two really diverge: Kelly celebrates the rise and development of the technium, whereas Turkle shares grave concerns about how it is transforming not simply our world but also ourselves. This difference undoubtedly is the difference between someone writing from the technology sphere (Kelly) and someone writing from the academic discipline of psychology (Turkle). [End Page 457]

In the Matrix trilogy of films, we see a dystopic vision in which humans and machines (the technium) are incapable of living together—at least not in harmony. This is not Turkle’s vision. We cannot destroy the machines (even the savior in the Matrix trilogy, Neo, is incapable of such a feat). We must make peace with the technium. At the same time, Turkle does not naively celebrate the technium’s advances. She advocates for realtechnik, which “suggests that we step back and reassess when we hear triumphalist or apocalyptic narratives about how to live with technology” (294). She wants, above all else, a conversation not only about what technology is and what it should do for us or with us but also about who we are and what we want to preserve about human identity as we advance into the great beyond. Kelly’s work certainly helps us understand the technium better, and thus What Technology Wants is a valuable resource for the conversation. But Turkle lays bare the deeper existential questions with which our conversation must grapple.

Kelly may be exactly right about where we are headed with the technium. But we would be well served to heed Turkle’s advice and have some serious conversations about the road we are on. Otherwise, we very well might become a society in which we care about each other but rarely care for each other. And who are “we” then? [End Page 458]

Eric Bain-Selbo

Eric Bain-Selbo is department head of philosophy and religion at Western Kentucky University, cofounder of the WKU Institute for Citizenship and Social Responsibility, and executive director of the Society for Values in Higher Education. His most recent book is Game Day and God: Football, Faith, and Politics in the American South.

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